Senior advisors from Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office tried to make a last minute edit to a statement mourning Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last September that would have cited an Israeli military report claiming she was killed “accidentally.”
After they were rebuffed due to time constraints, the advisors asked ministry staff to consider delaying the statement because they were worried about it clashing with the lead up to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.
The statement, which was put together via the international Media Freedom Coalition (MFC), was published without the desired edit on September 15, four days before the Queen’s funeral.
It read, in part: “Four months following the death of veteran Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the undersigned members of the Media Freedom Coalition continue to strongly condemn her killing in the West Bank and to call for accountability.” No specifics were attached to that demand.
Israeli forces shot and killed Abu Akleh during a raid on a refugee camp in Jenin on May 11, 2022. Despite dozens of investigations by journalists and human rights organizations pointing to Israel’s responsibility and the deliberate nature of the shooting, neither the Canadian government nor MFC, which Canada currently co-chairs, named Israel as the culprit.
Before the investigations into the killing, Canada was told by its own diplomatic staff in Israel and Palestine that Israel’s initial claim that a Palestinian gunman may have been responsible for the killing was “largely debunked,” and was warned that Israel has a poor track record of investigating its armed forces when they attack journalists.
Canada has ignored calls from human rights organizations to support an independent investigation into the killing conducted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Documents newly obtained by The Maple through an access to information request show that MFC’s statement was originally intended to be published on August 11, three months after Israeli forces deliberately shot and killed Abu Akleh.
However, a series of delays caused by requests for edits from signatory countries, including Canada, meant it wasn’t released until four months after the killing.
Earlier drafts of the statement, along with most details about the requested edits, were redacted by the ministry in the documents obtained by The Maple.
In the final days before the statement’s publication, senior advisors from Joly’s office got in touch with ministry staff asking for additional changes and a further delay.
On September 12, Nadia Hadj Mohamed, one of Joly’s senior policy advisors, sought a last minute addition to the statement that would have credited the Israeli military for investigating itself over the killing of Abu Akleh.
Joly’s advisor wrote: “We were wondering if we still had time to make changes to the statement or to be more specific additions to the statement.”
“We wanted to include a reference to that [sic] fact that Israel issued a report,” she continued, referring to a report published on September 5 in which the Israeli military admitted there was a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers killed Abu Akleh, but claimed the shooting was an accident and refused to open a criminal investigation into the matter.
Leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem slammed the report as a “whitewash” designed to shake off Israel’s responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death.
A forensic investigation conducted by a University of London research unit also rebutted Israel’s claim about the accidental nature of the killing, finding that the Israeli shooter opened fire on Abu Akleh and another journalist with an intention to kill despite their press vests being fully visible and a lack of any hostile gunfire in the area.
Mohamed was told by senior policy analyst Rebecca Bell that “making changes [to the statement] at this point would be quite difficult.”
Bell explained: “The statement has gone through a number of revisions and 18 members [of MFC] have opted in to the statement as written. Unless this is a strong redline, they don’t believe it will be possible to make edits at this point.”
The next day, two days before MFC published the statement, Mohamed wrote: “Did MFC consider whether the statement should be issued in the lead up of the Queen’s funeral or wait until after (given our own communication posture)?”
The same day, Bell responded that Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) “Strategic Communications Division” (SCD) had discussed only promoting the statement via “the generic MFC website/Twitter pages” and “not via our government channels.” Emily Williams, Joly’s deputy communications director, then informed Bell that SCD was “seeking confirmation” with the Privy Council Office on what course of action to take.
Williams added: “I think we will have to also issue it on GAC channels … at least on the website, [we] can live with it not going on the wire.” In other words, GAC could quietly publish the statement on its website, but ensure it wasn’t broadcast to the wider public via social media.
Alex Fortier, SCD’s deputy director, explained that the Privy Council “expect the [Prime Minister’s Office] to be fine with the issuance of this statement.” Williams replied: “Glad to know we’re ok to move forward this week re: comms guidance with the Queen’s passing.”
The MFC statement was ultimately published on the GAC website and social media channels on September 16, a day after it went live on MFC’s website and three days before the Queen’s funeral. The statement was shared by Canadian diplomats on social media, but not by any Trudeau government ministers.
The requested edit referencing Israel’s report wasn’t included.
Despite initially agreeing to answer questions from The Maple about GAC’s development of the MFC statement, the ministry did not provide any response by publication time.
Earlier Draft Was Approved By Deputy Minister
During the process of developing the statement, ministry staff appear to have anticipated pushback against language used in an earlier draft.
On July 28, Zachary Kornell, a senior advisor to GAC’s assistant deputy minister for international security and political affairs, thanked his colleagues for ensuring that “if there was pushback, the use of these terms [in the original draft] was well justified,” and that his department “approved” of the draft that it had received.
It is not clear which “terms” Kornell was referring to, as the draft in question was redacted by the ministry.
Mark Ayyash, a sociology professor at Mount Royal University specializing in decolonial studies and the Palestinian struggle, noted in an interview with The Maple that the final draft of the MFC statement contained no mention of Israel.
“Anybody reading that statement, without much context, would have no idea what happened here,” said Ayyash.
In reviewing the documents obtained by The Maple, Ayyash also pointed out that ministry staff didn’t cite any of the dozens of other reports pointing to Israel’s responsibility for the killing in the unredacted correspondence released by the ministry.
“They wanted the Israeli report to be put in there to exonerate Israel from this, and to turn it into a case of ‘we don't know what happened,’” Ayyash explained, adding that he believes the concerns about the Queen’s funeral were likely an excuse for a further delay that would have allowed more time to add a reference to the Israeli report.
The priority of the Canadian government, Ayyash continued, is to avoid publishing anything that reflects poorly on Israel.
“Their statement on this has nothing to do with freedom of the press, with human rights, with real concern for the censorship and killings of Palestinian journalists,” he added.
A Longstanding Policy
While considerable media attention in recent weeks has focused on the current Israeli government’s far-right agenda and plans to undermine the independence of the country’s judicial system, the Israeli military’s killing of Abu Akleh and subsequent self-investigation last year happened under the watch of a government described as “moderate” by some international media.
But for Palestinians, Ayyash explained, the basic policy of the Israeli state has remained unchanged since 1948: “Whether it was on the left wing or the right wing, Israel’s ultimate foundation is to expel Palestinians from their land, and to eliminate Palestinian sovereignty everywhere they find it.”
While the Trudeau government and some pro-Israel groups have issued soft criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government for some of its most egregious abuses, Ayyash said this is largely because the far-right administration’s most extreme elements make the West’s typical portrayal of Israel as a bastion of liberal democracy in the Middle East much harder to sell.
“Because they’re less able to sell all that as a result of the right-wing government, that’s why you are starting to see extremely soft critiques,” Ayyash explained. “For the Palestinians, nothing changes in this.”
Alex Cosh is the managing editor of The Maple.
Edited by Davide Mastracci.
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